In her 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, family friend Mercy Otis Warren harshly criticized John Adams for what she alleged was his apostasy from republicanism, positing that his long residency in Europe had caused him to favor monarchy and aristocracy. In a series of venomous letters written to her in 1807, Adams categorically denied the charge, maintaining that he had never wavered in his republicanism. For a long time historians such as Gordon Wood, John Howe, and Joyce Appleby sided with Warren in the dispute. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of scholars, most notably Richard Alan Ryerson and C. Bradley Thompson, who have questioned such an assumption. It goes without saying that Adams’s legacy depends to a great deal on who is correct.
The purpose of the present paper is to examine the consistency of Adams’s republicanism by considering his earliest forays into political writing during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66. Are themes that appear in later works, including his controversial Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America and Discourses on Davila, found in these earlier essays? Or, as Warren and her supporters contend, are the thoughts of the 1780s and 1790s Adams diametrically opposed to what he wrote in the 1760s? What follows will help to shed light on the political thought of the young John Adams and how it compares to his more mature thought.
A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law
By 1765 Adams, who had been held spellbound by the force of James Otis’s arguments against writs of assistance in 1761, found himself involved in constitutional issues involving the colonies and England. Having joined in January 1765 an informal discussion group consisting of fellow lawyers Jeremiah Gridley, Samuel Fitch, and Joseph Dudley, Adams began compiling random notes on canon and feudal law and their role in enhancing clerical and ministerial tyranny that he hoped to serve as the basis of an essay to be presented to the Sodality, as the discussion group was called. When word of the Stamp Act reached Massachusetts in May, Adams recognized that the very tyranny about which he was concerned was being visited upon the colonies. Encouraged by Gridley, the thirty-year-old Adams put aside his thoughts of an essay for discussion and set to work on what would become his earliest contribution to the literature of the American revolutionary period utilizing the notes that he had been putting together since February. The result was A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, a series of four unsigned essays that appeared in issues of the Boston Gazette dated August 12 and 19, September 30, and October 21.
The essays clearly display many of the characteristics of Adams’s later political works: the interest in historical precedents, the focus on human nature and the quest for power, the emphasis on God-given natural rights that must be protected by a constitution, and the importance of education in ensuring that the individual’s natural rights are preserved. In his first essay, Adams asserted that ecclesiastical and aristocratic hierarchies had conspired to take away the liberties “derived from the great legislator of the universe.” Only with the Reformation and the subsequent settling of America by the Puritans did people begin to reassert those liberties. “IT was this great struggle [between tyranny and liberty], that peopled America. It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal Liberty, and an hatred, a dread, an horror of the infernal confederacy, before described, that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.”
Adams continued his paean to his ancestors and their love of liberty in the second essay: “Their greatest concern seems to have been to establish a government of the church more consistent with the scriptures, and a government of the state more agreable to the dignity of humane nature, than any they had seen in Europe: and to transmit such a government down to their posterity, with the means of securing and preserving it, for ever.” Quoting Lord Kames and Rousseau, Adams made clear that the early settlers’ embracing of a constitution that protected individual rights and their rejection of the feudal and canon law that had enslaved the majority of Europeans bestowed upon them and their posterity the liberty that nature had intended for humanity. Such liberty was worth fighting for.
In the third and the fourth essays, Adams turned his attention to the Stamp Act crisis, though he did not specifically refer to it. He began by emphasizing the importance of education and a free press in a republic, for, without knowledge, individuals cannot defend their rights. Understanding this principle, the Puritan forefathers endeavored to make schools accessible to all families no matter one’s rank: “They made an early provision by law, that every town consisting of so many families, should be always furnished with a grammar school. They made it a crime for such a town to be destitute of a grammar school master, for a few months, and subjected it to an heavy penalty. So that the education of all ranks of people was made the care and expence of the public in a manner, that I believe has been unknown to any other people ancient or modern.”
As important as education is, the diffusion of information via the press is an equally invaluable part of a free society. Thus, Adams also acknowledged the contribution of his ancestors to a free press. “But none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the Press. Care has been taken, that the art of printing should be encouraged, and that it should be easy and cheap and safe for any person to communicate his thoughts to the public.”
It was here, in the second half of his essay of September 30, that Adams began to turn his pen toward Parliament. Speaking directly to the printers, he called on them not to be intimidated by enemies of freedom on either side of the Atlantic from publishing what they deemed to be the truth. That he was especially concerned with the British was made clear as he brought Essay Three to a close.
Believe me, the character of this country has suffered more in Britain, by the pusillanimity with which we have borne many insults and indignities from the creatures of power at home, and the creatures of those creatures here, than it ever did or ever will by the freedom and spirit that has been or will be discovered in writing, or action. Believe me my countrymen, they have imbibed an opinion on the other side the water, that we are an ignorant, a timid and a stupid people, nay their tools on this side have often the impudence to dispute your bravery. But I hope in God the time is near at hand, when they will be fully convinced of your understanding, integrity and courage. . . . The true source of our sufferings, has been our timidity.
Adams’s final essay was designed to rally the people to assert their natural rights against Parliament and the Stamp Act. Picking up on the notion of timidity with which he had ended the previous essay, Adams railed against those who had taken advantage of Americans’ reticence to challenge infringements on their freedoms:
“But whatever the cause [of the timidity] has been, the fact is certain, we have been excessively cautious of giving offence by complaining of grievances. And it is as certain that American governors, and their friends and all the crown officers have avail’d themselves of this disposition in the people. They have prevailed on us to consent to many things, which were grosly injurious to us, and to surrender many others with voluntary tameness, to which we had the clearest right.”
Finding the voice that would lead the independence movement ten years later, Adams called on his countrymen to stand up for those liberties that predated parliaments and government itself.
Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome . . . Let it be known, that British liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts, coequal with prerogative and coeval with government.—That many of our rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims and establish’d as preliminaries, even before a parliament existed. Let them search for the foundations of British laws and government in the frame of human nature, in the constitution of the intellectual and moral world. . . . Let every declamation turn upon the beauty of liberty and virtue, and the deformity, turpitude and malignity of slavery and vice.
In a word, Americans must be attentive to all actions designed to take away what was inherently theirs, and the Stamp Act was certainly one of those sinister actions. “The prospect, now before us, in America, ought in the same manner to engage the attention of every man of learning to matters of power and of right, that we may be neither led nor driven blindfolded to irretrievable destruction. Nothing less than this seems to have been meditated for us, by somebody or other in Great-Britain. There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot, to enslave all America.”
The Braintree Instructions
Having placed himself squarely in the dispute with the motherland, Adams would soon be called upon to take up his pen again. In the fall of 1765 the freeholders of Braintree chose a committee of five persons to draft instructions for Ebenezer Thayer, their delegate to the General Court, regarding the Stamp Act and other grievances. Chosen as one of the members of the committee, Adams was tasked with writing the instructions. Printed in the Massachusetts Gazette on October 10, 1765, the Braintree Instructions were widely disseminated throughout Massachusetts and quickly adopted by forty towns, an unprecedented occurrence, further enhancing the author’s reputation as a voice against parliamentary overreach.
As a protégé of Gridley and Otis, Adams focused on constitutional issues in the Instructions. There were two specific issues that were most concerning. First of all, the Stamp Act’s constitutionality was called into question since the tax had been introduced without the colonists’ consent.
We further apprehend this Tax to be unconstitutional: We have always understood it to be a grand and fundamental Principle of the Constitution, that no Freeman should be subjected to any Tax, to which he has not given his own Consent, in Person or by Proxy. And the Maxims of the Law as we have constantly received them, are to the same Effect, that no Freeman can be separated from his Property, but by his own Act or Fault. We take it clearly, therefore, to be inconsistent with the Spirit of the Common Law, and of the essential fundamental Principles of the British Constitution, that we should be subjected to any Tax, imposed by the British Parliament: because we are not represented in that Assembly in any Sense, unless it be by a Fiction of Law, as insensible in Theory as it would be injurious in Practice, if such a Taxation should be grounded on it.
The second issue addressed by Adams was the creation of Admiralty Courts, which eliminated one of the most fundamental rights of Englishmen, trial by jury.
But the most grievous Innovation of all, is the alarming Extension of the Power of Courts of Admiralty. In these Courts, one Judge presides alone! No Juries have any Concern there!—The Law, and the Fact, are both to be decided by the same single Judge, whose Commission is only during Pleasure, and with whom, as we are told, the most mischievous of all Customs has become established, that of taking Commissions on all Condemnations; so that he is under a pecuniary Temptation always against the Subject. . . . We cannot help asserting therefore, that this Part of the Act will make an essential Change in the Constitution of Juries, and is directly repugnant to the Great Charter itself.
Consistent with his position in Dissertation and in his later works, Adams here focused on those rights that must never be surrendered by the people and which therefore demand a government structure and a social infrastructure that will ensure their maintenance.
The Clarendon Letters
In the summer of 1765, at the height of the Stamp Act crisis, there appeared in a London newspaper a series of four essays, under the name “William Pym,” defending Parliament’s right not only to tax the colonists but also to set up the detested Admiralty Courts. By using “William Pym” as his nomenclature, the essayist hearkened back to the English civil war and the leader of the parliamentarians, John Pym. While only the third of the four essays was reprinted in a Boston newspaper, leaders of the colonial resistance in Massachusetts were quick to respond. James Otis wrote eight newspaper essays under the name “John Hampden,” recalling Pym’s close associate in Parliament, in which he presented a point-by-point rebuttal to William Pym’s arguments. Adams himself entered the literary battle after Otis. Assuming the persona of the Earl of Clarendon, royal adviser to Charles I and chief opponent to John Pym, he wrote three essays under the guise of open letters to Pym in the Boston Patriot on January 13, 20, and 27, 1766.
Taking obvious delight in engaging in an “otherworldly” correspondence with Pym, Adams began his first letter by assailing his opponent’s character. The fact that the eighteenth-century Pym disavowed his own seventeenth-century adherence to Liberty and Justice by defending Parliament’s right to repudiate colonial charters and foist unconstitutional taxes on the colonists showed that he was a dissimulator and a false friend of the people: “The revolution which one century has produced in your opinions and principles, is not quite so surprizing to me, as it seems to be to many others. You know, very well, I had always a jealousy, that your humanity was counterfeited, your ardor for liberty canker’d with simulation, and your integrity problematical at least.” Adams went on to introduce one of the most common themes in his political works, one that certainly reflected the influence of his Calvinist background: Pym’s change of heart “gives me many very painful reflections on the frailty, inconstancy and depravity of the human race.”
After attacking Pym’s character, Adams then focused throughout the remainder of the first letter on the unconstitutionality of the Admiralty Courts: “. . . if you recollect the real constitution of Great Britain, and the nature of the new courts of admiralty, you will not wonder at the spirit that has appeared in that country. Their resistance is founded in much better principles, and aims at much better ends, than I fear yours did in Charles’s reign . . .”
It is important to note that at no time in his writing did Adams question the fundamental authority of the British constitution. Indeed, he always evaluated acts of Parliament in light of the constitution, more often than not asserting that Parliament impinged upon the rights of colonists by failing to adhere to the basic principles of the constitution. His later comments in the 1786-87 Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America eulogizing the British constitution as the best in the world thus do not indicate any radical change in temperament, as both contemporary and later critics have argued, but are quite consistent with his earliest views.
In his second letter, Adams had Clarendon describe his change from seventeenth-century supporter of the King to eighteenth-century proponent for the people’s Liberty. Here Clarendon reflected on the last words spoken to him by his father: “Let me warn you, against that Ambition, which I have often observed in Men of your Profession, which will sacrifice all, to their own Advancement. And I charge you, on a Father’s Blessing, never to forget this Nation, nor to suffer the Hope of Honors or Profits; nor the Fear of Menaces or Punishments from the Crown, to seduce you from the Law, the Constitution, and the real Welfare and Freedom of this People.”
As we learn from his diary, Adams spent much of his life fighting ambition within himself. Indeed, this was the passion that Adams insisted throughout his writings had to be checked if republican government were to survive. His survey of ancient and modern republics in Defence, for example, provided numerous examples of aristocrats and demagogues alike using their influence to further their own interests while sowing the seeds of tyranny. It was this fear of personal ambition that led Adams to embrace the mixed government that distinguished the Roman Republic and was perfected by Great Britain. Only when the One, the Few, and the Many could check each other’s ambition would stable government be attained.
It was in the third letter that Adams more fully addressed the goal of government and the benefits of the British mixed constitution. Foreshadowing his Thoughts on Government, Adams declared that the purpose of any government is the salus populi (welfare of the people), and this can be realized only when each of the three parts has equal control in legislation and execution. What made the British constitution superior to others was its blending of “the monarchial splendor, the aristocratical independency, and the democratical freedom . . .”
Adams gave special attention to the role of the people in the mixed government, declaring that only with elections and trials by jury can popular liberty be preserved.
Thus it seems to appear that two branches of popular power, voting for members of the house of commons, and tryals by juries, the one in the legislative and the other in the executive part of the constitution are as essential and fundamental, to the great end of it, the preservation of the subject’s liberty, to preserve the balance and mixture of the government, and to prevent its running into an oligarchy or aristocracy; as the lords and commons are to prevent its becoming an absolute monarchy.
While there were times when Adams expressed concern that popular factions would undermine republican government, he never wavered in his belief in the need for the people to play a significant role if individual liberties were to be preserved. As he himself noted in the third letter, “. . . it stands upon this principle, that the meanest and lowest of the people, are, by the unalterable indefeasible laws of God and nature, as well intitled to the benefit of the air to breathe, light to see, food to eat, and clothes to wear, as the nobles or the king. All men are born equal: and the drift of the British constitution is to preserve as much of this equality . . .”
Consistency in Adams’s Political Philosophy
Adams spent much of his retirement years defending himself against charges that he had forsaken his republican past. In letters to Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, Mercy Otis Warren, John Taylor, and others, he declared that he was a consistent advocate for republican principles and that it was not he who had changed but those who, caught up in the fervor of the French Revolution, championed an unrealistic leveling of society that would lead to anarchy and eventual tyranny. I suggest that there is sufficient evidence to support Adams’s claim.
John Adams was never a revolutionary in the true sense of the word. He did not want to turn society upside down as, for instance, Condorcet and Raynal did. He was a constitutionalist who strongly supported the British constitution and led the independence movement only when it became apparent that the Ministry intended to take away the fundamental constitutional rights of the colonists. The polemical works discussed in this paper as well as his Thoughts on Government and his later Defence and Discourses on Davila were all founded on the basic premise that only a mixed government that followed the model of Britain, with a strong executive and a system of checks and balances, could bring about the stability necessary to ensure liberty for all the people.
Did Adams’s political thoughts evolve from the 1760s to the 1790s? Of course, we can trace some changes. After all, he was a realist who reacted to what he saw happening in the world. There were times when he appeared to fear aristocracy and to favor the people; on other occasions he tended to support a natural, though not a hereditary, aristocracy as a bulwark against the people, and this is what aroused the angry backlash against him. In truth, Adams feared that all factions, fueled by ambition and self-interest, posed a threat to individual liberty, and this is why he never deviated from the fundamental political thought expressed in his earliest works, which focused on preserving the liberties of all by ensuring the inclusion of all parties in a constitutionally mixed republic.